What a pool.
May 25, 2016 by Robert Gough in Preview with 0 comments
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It’s not often you find a pool with two regular season tournament winners and a team that went undefeated at Regionals with the most hyped rookie female college player in recent memory. Even more surprising is that none of those teams are the highest seed in the pool. With the bookend teams showing some closer-than-expected wins on one side (UBC Thunderbirds) and a strong finish on the other (Dartmouth Princess Layout), Pool B looks to be the most well-rounded collection of talent. Add in a team’s disassociation from its college, two 2016 Callahan finalists, and a couple All-Star tour players, and you’ve got likely the most interesting pool at the tournament.
British Columbia Thunderbirds
Seeding: B1, Overall #2
Overall Record: 23-5
Against Nationals Field: 16-5
Against Pool: 1-0 vs. UCLA, 1-0 vs. Pittsburgh, 3-0 vs. Chaos
Key Matchup: UCLA, 12:30 PM Friday
After compiling a 23-5 regular season record (not including a 5-0 tournament in January against the likes of Oregon Fugue, Whitman Sweets, and Chaos), only losing games to teams ranked in the top five, UBC had an objectively amazing season. 60% of their losses came against the #1 ranked team in the country, and their average margin of loss was barely over three points. After losing some of last year’s production to graduation, most of the big names remain, headlined by the most complete thrower in the division: Mira Donaldson. Primary target Victoria McCann is back, and Esther Au handles next to Donaldson, while Ultiworld’s 2015 Rookie of the Year Ellen Au-Yeung continues her stellar work on defense. Plug in a swarm of talented returners — Naomi Morcilla, Julia Zhang, and many others — and UBC looks much like the team of the past few years: balanced and deeply skilled.
But the team made two additions this year: All-Star Tour’s Kate Scarth joined the team, and long-time Furious George star Jeff Cruickshank came on as head coach. Scarth is a gifted athlete that has the physical tools and disc skills to be plugged in on any line; a great asset that doesn’t shift the archetype of UBC’s game. The team doesn’t seem to play any overtly unique or new styles of offense/defense under Cruickshank, but when you have Donaldson centering an offense, you don’t really want to change too much.
Behind the scenes, says Mira Donaldson, the team has made some changes: “Between the addition of (the rookies) and new coaches, the team’s atmosphere has changed dramatically. The environment is full of positivity and encouragement, leading to confidence that has really contributed to team and individual development. It has caused everybody to be excited about the season and focused on achieving our goals.”
While the win-loss record is great, UBC has struggled recently to gain and/or maintain leads against lower seeded teams. In two of their last three games against Washington Element, UW had a lead for a majority of the game. In the third game, UBC smashed Element 13-5. In their first game at Regionals against Chaos, UBC trailed virtually the entire game, only to storm back and win on double game point. The next day, in their biggest postseason game — the semifinals against the Whitman Sweets — UBC only had a small lead to start the game before trading points and eventually falling behind in the second half, losing 11-13. The blemishes noted may be small, but it’s clear that UBC has a minor tendency to leave a window open for teams to jump on them and take a lead, a dangerous flaw to have at Nationals.
“I think those experiences can have a bit of both the positive and negative effect on the team,” says Donaldson. “However, our team has been fairly successful in getting back to where we want to be, and I think that speaks to our mental toughness and trust in each other, eventually leading to team empowerment.”
It doesn’t help their case the Pool B might very well be the “Pool of Death” this year, and Donaldson agrees. “The pool is stacked! I think all of the teams pose a threat in one way or another,” she said. “It is nice that we have played almost all of the teams and know what to expect, to some extent. However, that statement can be said by our opponents as well. We anticipate all games will be well fought.”
The Thunderbirds have proven that they can beat anyone at this tournament — including Oregon in a 15-8 win at Stanford Invite — but not with the consistency of other top seeds. If UBC can study up and stay focused, this is a championship-ready team.
UCLA Bruin Ladies Ultimate (BLU)
Seeding: B2, Overall #7
Overall Record: 28-10
Against Nationals Field: 9-10
Against Pool: 0-1 vs. UBC, 1-0 vs. Chaos
Key Matchup: Pittsburgh, 2:30pm Saturday
After winning their first tournament of the season and reaching the finals in the other — both finals against Stanford — UCLA was an early favorite for a deep run at Nationals. Success came quickly, and it can be attributed to the team’s ability to grind and trust each other. “SBI had rough conditions,” said the team’s Callahan finalist Kristen Pojunis. “Rain delays and wind created a lot of unknowns throughout the day, but BLU was able to pull through and win tight games to claim the tournament title.”
Highlighted by an exciting upset of Oregon at President’s Day1, UCLA showed off some high-caliber offense on their way to the finals. Pojunis points to the offense’s ability to “flow smoothly” and “confidence in our teammate’s abilities” as key factors for the performance. “At Pres Day we were really able to utilize our athleticism as well, which gives us an advantage against many teams.”
The team seemed to lose a little steam after the strong start, managing just a 2-5 record at the Stanford Invite and a 4-3 record at Centex2. Though not eye-popping results, there was some good to be had from those experiences: a shorter roster at Stanford Invite gave rookies more playing time against the nation’s best; “crazy conditions” at Centex gave a varied playing experience for a Los Angeles team. As Pojunis jokes, “the best you can do in LA is ‘pretend there’s wind.'”
The Bruin Ladies’ roster features one of the most dynamic and entertaining duos in Kristin Pojunis and Han Chen, Ultiworld’s 2015 Breakout Player of the Year. The two log a ton of points for UCLA, and are a nightmare for opposing defenses: both are athletic and skilled enough to beat you with or without the disc.
But BLU is more than the sum of their two stars.
“BLU’s strength and success can largely be attributed to the consistency provided by Tiana Rangchi, Sylvia Liang, and Breanna Dirkse,” explained Pojunis. “These three women are all very talented cutters who really help work it through the middle and move the disc. Tiana Rangchi plays excellent defense, and has earned a ton of blocks for BLU. Sylvia Liang and Breanna Dirkse really help keep the offense moving and are excellent at getting open in the middle. Additionally, Alyssa Worsham is our silent killer. I feel like shut down defense often goes unnoticed, but her handler defense is phenomenal and she is an extremely chilly handler who can help calm the team.”
BLU should be cautious against Pittsburgh’s Danger, who have two big-time players themselves who might matchup well against the Pojunis/Chen firepower. Both teams have a regular season title under their belts, but they have yet to play each other. UCLA has some better wins, but the gap between these two teams is slim.
Seeding: B3, Overall #11
Overall Record: 24-7
Against Nationals Field: 3-6
Against Pool: 1-0 vs. Chaos, 1-0 vs. Dartmouth, 0-1 vs. UBC
Key Matchup: Chaos, 12:30 PM Friday
Pittsburgh enters Nationals as the Regional champion for the first time since 2010, when they were back in the Metro East. After getting blown out by Ohio State in the regional finals for several years, Danger have taken a huge step forward this season, not only earning a bid to Nationals for the second year in a row, but by building upon their successful 2015 campaign, reaching the finals in two of their three regular season tournaments, winning the Commonwealth Cup. Their performance at the Northwest Challenge was wildly interesting: just a 2-5 record, but a 15-14 win over Chaos after trailing 11-14, a two-point loss to UBC, and a one-point loss to Whitman.
This is a team that can score in bunches, and it starts with U23 player and All-Star Tour member Carolyn Normile. Quick, scrappy, and talented as hell, Normile touches the disc a ton, and quarterbacks the explosive offense that features a big downfield threat in Linda Morse, and Callahan nominee Vaughan Skinker. Throw in potential Rookie of the Year in Abigail Bomberger, and you’ve got a team with top-end talent that can compete with anyone else in the pool.
Pittsburgh finds themselves in the “last team in” spot in the pool: they have to hold or break seed to make the championship bracket. They have wins over the teams below them, but played those teams just once: a nail-biting comeback win against Chaos (mentioned above), and an early season pool play win over a Dartmouth team without Jaclyn Verzuh. Danger has the raw skill to upset UCLA and UBC above them, but can’t afford to get upset themselves against the teams below.
Their biggest game will likely be the rematch against Chaos on Friday, which will be their first of the tournament, but the second game in a row for Chaos. Danger needs to come out of the gates keyed-in and ready, or else they could be in, well, danger.
Seeding: B4, Overall #14
Overall Record: 14-15
Against Nationals Field: 2-14
Against Pool: 1-0 vs. Dartmouth, 0-3 vs. UBC, 0-1 vs. UCLA, 0-1 vs. Pittsburgh
Key Matchup: Pittsburgh, 12:30 PM Friday
In case you’ve been living under a rock for the past couple of weeks, let’s review Chaos’ current Nationals representation scenario: as a result of the HB2 law, Washington’s Governor encouraged organizations/agencies to follow suit in his banning of non-essential travel to North Carolina; Western Washington did just that. The women’s ultimate team, as a result, was unable to travel as a Western Washington entity, and was unable to use the university’s financial resources they normally would to help fund such a trip, instead raising money on their own.
After raising over $12,000, Chaos is playing at College Nationals as an independent team.
“The political relationship between North Carolina and Washington state has created a situation that is not ideal for any team leading up to Nationals,” said the Chaos captains. “However, Chaos has seen this situation as an opportunity rather than an obstacle. We have taken advantage of this situation to engage in meaningful dialogue and create new connections with communities around the country. Despite some added stress of fundraising and logistics, this situation has brought us closer together as a team and as a community.”
Another thing that sets this Chaos team apart from the rest of the field: they are the only team at Nationals with a losing record.
That’s really splitting hairs, however, when you consider they have just one more loss than wins, and the fact that they compete in the deepest, most talented region in the country: the Northwest, featuring three of the top five seeds in the country.
Chaos have battled in some remarkably close games against the Nation’s best, most recently a double game point loss to in-pool, in-region opponent UBC at Regionals. For this team and its captains, just competing is an accomplished goal.
“Our close games have showed us that we have the ability to play with any team in the country,” said the captains. “Our entire year has been about leaving the fields feeling like we have earned the recognition as one of the top teams in the nation. No matter what the end result of these close games have been, we know that we earned the others team’s respect.”
Amidst controversies on a human-wide scale, Chaos have shown their values off the field, and now look to prove them on the field. “These games have also proven to ourselves, as a relativity new team to this caliber of competition, that we can compete at this level,” they said. “If anything, these close games have left us hungry. We have never felt complacent during these hard-fought games and that will help to give us the edge at nationals.”
Seeding: B5, Overall #18
Overall Record: 16-9
Against Nationals Field: 0-6
Against Pool: 0-1 vs. Pittsburgh, 0-1 vs. Chaos
Key Matchup: UBC, 8:30am Friday
Dartmouth returns to college Nationals after a (tied for) 5th place finish in 2015. After a hype-inducing off-season featuring 2015 All-American handler Angela Zhu win a club championship, the recruitment of the most recognizable rookie in ages — Seattle product Jaclyn Verzuh — and the sophomore season of WJUC player and 2015 Rookie of the Year runner-up Julianna Werffeli, Princess Layout was assumed to be one of the top teams in the country.
Their season didn’t turn out that way. An early concussion to Verzuh, leaving her sidelined until the post-season, and other nagging injuries left-and-right left the roster lighter than expected, and Dartmouth meandered to a 5-10 record after two regular season tournaments, going 0-6 against the Nationals field.
Then came the postseason, and Dartmouth went undefeated at Regionals, beating Northeastern in the finals 15-7.
Though clearly not in a great spot as a fifth seed in the pool, Princess Layout is the scariest team in that position in either division, and has to be a cause of concern for anyone they play. This creates an interesting dynamic in preparation and outlook for their opponents, while giving Dartmouth some freedom in a “nothing to lose” position. The rare combination of size, speed, and skill that Verzuh brings will negate likely any other team’s biggest and best athletes that top the rosters of teams like UCLA and Pittsburgh, and the balance in the rest of the roster enables the team to hang-in with the depth of teams like UBC and Chaos.
Every game this team plays is a chance to shake things up, but they get an especially great shot at doing so in their first game of the tournament against the pools top seed: UBC. With the Thunderbirds’ desperate comeback win against Chaos in the first game of Regionals, there might be a window for Dartmouth to find what would be one of the biggest upsets at Nationals: a five seed beating a one seed.
No one wants to face this team on the field, but all of us want to see them on it.
Tune in to Ultiworld’s livestream coverage of British Columbia vs. UCLA at 12:30 PM Friday afternoon.